The Great Basin in Nevada is brush-studded, rocky, sandy, nasty, snake-ridden, wind-blown, mercilessly tough country -- but above all, it's spectacularly flammable. In the wide expanses of sagebrush and cheatgrass, any wildfire with a little wind behind it moves fast and gets big quick.
Firefighters here tell stories of fires that have jumped across Interstate 80 without bothering to touch down in the median. They speak of fires so powerful that they create their own weather, of flaming dust devils that have stripped the mirrors off fire engines -- and of a highway patrol trooper who once clocked a blaze doing 65.
Mike Fettic is second-in-command of the Bureau of Land Management's fire station in Winnemucca, which is responsible for attacking fires on more than 8 million acres of federal land, an area bigger than Maryland. The highway patrol story, he concedes, may be apocryphal.
"But who knows," he says. "I've been driving down the freeway at 40 miles an hour, and the fire's just running along right next to me."
Things have always been done a little differently in Nevada, and firefighting is no exception. Fighting a forest fire in a place like Montana frequently requires an extended siege in which 20-person hand crews -- think of the old cartoons of Smokey Bear slinging a shovel -- cut fireline in an arduous process that can grind on for weeks. In Nevada, by contrast, standard operating procedure for a brush fire is to hit fast and hard in a heavily mechanized blitzkrieg.
But in a landscape that breaks axles, pops tires and can turn a fire truck inside-out like an overcooked knackwurst, what-in-God's-name kind of a machine could possibly rise to the challenge? Only, it turns out, one dreamt up by the same brilliant minds that brought the world spatzle, spicy mustard, and saucy Bavarian frauleins in low-cut dirndls slinging frosty mugs of Spaten.
For nearly 40 years, Mercedes craftsmen in the German towns of Gaggenau and Worth am Rhein have lovingly turned out a series of trucks that are the Teutonic wunderkinds of the BLM's firefighting fleet. The vehicles are called Unimogs, and they are some of the weirdest-looking machines to ever hit sagebrush country.
The Mogs are feisty, 15-and-a-half-ton, four-wheel-drive beasts that can plow their way through thick sage, squirt foam on a fire, and climb over just about anything in the Nevada desert. They have a central tire-inflation system that will keep their tires pumped full of air even if they've been punctured. The Mogs' fully independent suspensions let them crawl through the most rugged terrain and cling to even the steepest hillsides -- a phenomenon known in Mog-speak as "tweaking out."
But the Unimog's forte and most distinguishing characteristic is its ability to "cut" fireline with the two-ton plow blade mounted on its nose. By blading its way through sagebrush, a Mog can create a fireline across which a fire cannot burn and, eventually, corral the fire into an enclosure from which it cannot escape. The tactic is beautifully suited to the driest state in the nation, where water sources are few and far between.
"When you run out of water in a standard-issue engine, you're done," says Fettic. "When you run out of water in the Unimog, you can just put the blade down and keep fighting fire. You can just go and go and go."
Fettic recalls a thousand-acre fire not all that long ago, when several other engines had teamed up with the Mog he was running. "The fire was just kicking their ass, and they were out of water, and it was flaring up and taking off," he says. "We hadn't used a drop of water, so they came over and got water from us, and we just kept trucking around cutting line. Eventually, we got the whole thing lined and went home, and we still had two or three hundred gallons of water left."
In the taxonomy of BLM fire trucks, the Mogs are the rarest breed of cat. Of the roughly 500 fire engines the agency operates, only three are Unimogs. Yet they are the latest manifestation of a 40-year quest to create the ultimate wildland firefighting tool -- and that quest isn't anywhere close to being over.